The need for a liberal review of the Niqab and the Hijab

The issue of dress codes for women has been a debating point for long.  Some Islamic scholars believe that there is no such decree in the holy books, while others interpret it counter-wise to make their case.  Even with so much new research conducted on the subject, there is no consensus among Islamic scholars and clerics as to the relevance and value of dress codes for women.  The Niqab and Hijab in particular are two dressing items that have come to focus in Islamic critical discourse.  Scholars such as  Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Fatima Mernissi have helped bring about great clarity to the problems.  Based on their writings, it is possible to argue that the Niqab and Hijab were incorporated into the Islamic code due to exceptional and temporal circumstances; and that their continued usage in modern times is subject to the demands of changed sensibilities.  The following passages will offer evidence from the readings in support of this thesis.

In the reading titled Is Wearing the Niqab Obligatory for Women, author Yusuf al-Qaradawi gives copious examples from the sacred texts to suggest that the covering of face is not part of the original holy decree.  He argues that in the early years of Islam’s assimilation into Arabic society, there are numerous references to men being attracted and fixated by a woman’s beauty and these occurrences would not have been documented had women’s faces been obstructed by a Niqab.  Complementing the inference of this observation is the fact that in a predominantly trade-oriented society at the time of Islam’s origins, it would be a big encumbrance for women to carry out everyday tasks such as receiving and giving merchandise, receiving and giving money, etc, if their hand was covered by clothing.  Furthermore, although a woman’s hand is considered to be an aspect of her beauty, there is no consensus as to whether it is classified as an ‘awra.   For example, from the following translation of Shīrāzī, the Shāfiʿī author of the Muhadhdhab, we learn that

“As for a free women, all her body is her ʿawra, apart from her face and hands—Nawawī states, up to the wrists—because of the verse, (and let them not display their beauty (zīna) except what [usually] appears of it).9 Ibn Abbās states that [what is excepted] refers to her face and her hands,10 because the Prophet r prohibited women in the state of iḥrām11 from wearing a niqāb and gloves.12 If the face and hands were part of theʿawra, it would not have been   impermissible (ḥarām) to cover them, and [in addition, everyday] needs require showing one’s face in buying and selling, and showing one’s hands in giving and taking, so they have not been made part of the ʿawra.” ( Yusuf al-Qaradawi, p.4)

Also, not many scholars agree that the hands and face of a woman provoke sexual desire in a man; or even if it does so, the solution is not to cover them up with clothing.  It has been indicated in the holy books that when struck by the beauty of a woman, a man should lower his gaze as a way of dissipating the heightened state of sensuality that he is prone to.  Also, as revealed in the Hadith, a man is allowed to look at a woman’s face when asking for her hand in marriage, for the face captures the essence of her entire beauty and character.  This would be quite impossible if practices such as wearing the Niqab and the Hijab were adhered to during the early days of the religion.

Fatima Mernissi is another scholar who illuminates the debate on dress codes.  Not only is she a radical interpreter of Islamic holy texts, but also a feminist who is open to modern views.  Hence her take on the relevance of Hijab is both interesting and provocative.  She asserts that at the time of the Hijab’s conception, the word had a very broad meaning.  And “reducing or assimilating this concept to a scrap of cloth that men have imposed on women to veil them when they go into the street is truly to impoverish this term, not to say to drain it of its meaning, especially when one knows tha the hijab, according to the Koranic verse and al-Tabari’s explanation, ‘descended’ from Heaven to separate the space between two men.” (Mernissi, p.95).  The two men in the original context were Prophet Mohammad and his companion Anas Ibn Malik so as to secure the privacy of the former.  That is, Prophet Mohammad, having recently married Zaynad, was anxious and longing to consummate his marriage.  But due to the insensitivity of his guests to respect the privacy of the newly wed, Prophet Mohammad creates a ‘hijab’ to descend at the entrance of his nuptial chamber, as a way of separating himself and his wife from Anas Ibn Malik and others.  And this practice has continued till today in some parts of the Islamic world, albeit in a modified form, divorced from the original meaning.  But, while originally it served as a curtain between two men, in its present manifestation it is employed to separate men from women.  Interpreted more radically, the Hijab can now be construed as a piece of clothing that separates women from their own selves and undermines their individual identity.

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